Finance

United States should capitalize — literally — on the #MeToo moment

As the #MeToo movement goes global, many nations are grappling with the need for reform so that women in the workplace are free from discrimination and harassment. The U.S. government is taking action as well: the House of Representatives just passed legislation to promote economic growth by eliminating barriers to women's economic opportunities globally. This is not just a question of fairness, but of economics: one recent analysis estimates that $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 simply by leveling the playing field between women and men at work.

Despite the financial stakes, however, most countries still have laws and policies on the books that make it harder for women to work. According to a new World Bank report, over one hundred countries restrict the kinds of jobs women can hold, preventing 2.75 billion women worldwide from working in mining, energy, agriculture, or other industries. In Russia, for example, women can't do 456 specific jobs simply because they are women. In Argentina, women can't work in distilleries, while in France, there's a limit on how much weight they are allowed to lift. They can't use specific kinds of hammers in Guinea, or work with certain types of printed materials in Madagascar.

Legal inequalities also impede women's entrepreneurship and access to capital. In nearly forty countries, according to the report, widows have fewer inheritance rights than widowers, and daughters cannot inherit in the same ways as sons. Eighteen countries still require women to have their husband's permission to work outside the home. Women around the world face restrictions in getting passports or national ID cards, which makes it harder for them to do everything from opening a bank account to obtaining employment to traveling freely. And in fifty-nine countries, there is no legal protection against sexual harassment in the workplace whatsoever.

 

These legal inequalities matter-not only to women, but also to our bottom lines. When women enjoy legal protections in the workplace, they are more likely to own businesses, thereby fostering economic growth. And when countries make their labor laws more equal for women and men, the report shows women work-and earn-more.

Governments around the world are beginning to take notice-and to act. In the past two years alone, the report notes, sixty-five countries have enacted legal reforms that improved women's economic opportunities, ranging from stronger domestic violence laws in Bahrain to increased maternity leave in Colombia. In some countries, male policymakers weren't even aware of the restrictions that they have since removed, because the laws didn't affect them directly.

The U.S. government is taking welcome steps as well, with the recent House passage of the Women's Entrepreneurship and Economic Empowerment Act. Co-sponsored by Representatives Ed Royce (R-CA) and Lois Frankel (D-FL), the legislation aims to improve women's access to financial services and opportunities and expand support for women-owned small- and medium-sized enterprises, including by addressing laws that inhibit women's participation in the economy. The bill also recognizes that legal reform must be paired with training to ensure that banks, business regulators, land registrars, and women themselves know about new legal protections.

The Senate should follow suit in passing this bill-but it should be just the first step of many. The U.S. government also should incentivize countries to level the playing field for women by conditioning U.S. funding on reform efforts. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) has done this already with great success: an MCC compact in Lesotho, for example, precipitated legal changes that ended women's status as minors under the law.

In addition, the United States should use its footprint on the diplomatic stage to press for fair treatment of women in the workforce. If the Trump administration wants better trade deals, it should include stipulations to increase women's economic participation, improve their access to supply chains, and support female workers-to the benefit of the United States and of women around the world. And on the multilateral stage, Washington should push for more concrete measures at the Group of 20 (G20) summit in Argentina this fall. The precedent is there: in 2014, the G20 set an ambitious and concrete target of reducing the gender gap in labor force participation rates in member countries by 25 percent by 2025. Now countries need to deliver.  

Of course, to promote women's economic opportunities abroad, the United States ought to lead by example-and address the constellation of barriers impeding women in the workplace in our own backyard, from pay inequality to the absence of paid family leave to the epidemic of sexual harassment unveiled by the #MeToo movement. Washington also should take steps to promote women's access to capital here at home-for example, by addressing the shortfall in venture capital support for female entrepreneurs, supporting female entrepreneurs through the Small Business Administration, and promoting private sector efforts to source from women-owned businesses through tax breaks and other incentives.

Women represent a valuable economic reserve that has yet to be tapped. Leveling the playing field in the workplace is more than simply a moral challenge-it is an economic opportunity, and one on which we ought to capitalize.

Jamille Bigio is a Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Find her on Twitter @jamillebigioRachel Vogelstein is the Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown Law School.

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